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Queering the food system with Ike Leslie

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KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana this is Earth Eats and I'm your host Kayte Young. This week on the show we're questioning the traditions and assumptions around the role of family in farming. 

IIKE LESLIE: When something goes wrong in the family relationship, it can really affect the farm business. And when something goes in the wrong in the farm business, it can really affect the family relationship, which has big implications for things like food security. Although we often don't look at it that way. 

KAYTE YOUNG: My guest is food scholar and sociologist Dr Ike Leslie at the University of New Hampshire. Stay with us for a conversation about querying the food system that's coming up after this. 

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte young. On this show, we explore the food system from many perspectives. Sometimes it's about preparing food, other times it's about growing food. We look at food access environmental concerns--we've applied a lens of racial justice and equity to the study of food.We've looked at land access and historical discrimination. Recently, I heard a talk through the Indiana University Food Institute's speaker series. It was a topic I hadn't really thought about. The guest speaker was Dr. Ike Leslie, and the talk was called Queering, the Food System. The lecture was interesting and thought provoking and touched on issues we've examined on the show before, but approached them in new ways. I reached out to Ike Leslie and invited them for a conversation. 

IIKE LESLIE: My name is Ike Leslie and I'm a sociologist, currently working in the Food Systems Department at the University of New Hampshire. I'm also a farmer at Magnetic Fields farm here in Athens, Vt, and I'm a community organizer especially with LGBTQ plus farmers around the northeast. 

KAYTE YOUNG: What do you mean when you talk about queering the food system? 

IIKE LESLIE: Well, to queer something means to question what gender and sexuality has to do with something in life, anything in life. Now, a queer perspective, it's a justice perspective which demands that we approach all of these topics intersectionally, especially in terms of race. And so when I talk about querying the food system, I'm talking about questioning what gender, sexuality and their intersecting oppressions has to do with queer farmers, queer eaters, and queer folks in between. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you talk about the history of the family farm as a social creation. 

IIKE LESLIE: One of the wonderful things about using a queer perspective is that a queer perspective is not only about looking at the experiences of queer people. It's primarily concerned with that, but it's also about investigating what does gender and sexuality have to do in the lives, and the lived experiences of all folks, because everybody is affected by and performs gender and sexuality in one way or another. In my work on LGBTQ plus farmers, I'm looking at not just what gender and sexuality has to do with LGBTQ plus farmers experiences, but also all farmers experiences. And when we ask what does gender and sexuality have to do with farm life and zoom out a little bit and start questioning some of the taken for granted or hidden-in-plain-sight Things of farming, we start seeing the family farm. Now, what is the family farm? So, the family farm--it's rhetoric that we hear all the time we hear it from the right, we hear it from the left and everywhere in between--seems to celebrate this idea of the family farm, right, and in my opinion, what the family farm is when we look at it sociologically, it's when we organize a farm business around an intimate or a sexual relationship where your business partner is also your intimate or sexual partner. So, my research investigates what is this way of doing farming and this way of doing family have to do with topics like farm viability, sustainability and social justice? 

IKE LESLIE: Now how did we get here was your question? What's the history of the family farm here? I'm drawing on the work of Dr. Gabriel Rosenberg, who's a queer theorist, and a historian at Duke University. And Dr. Rosenberg looks at the history of the family farm in the United States and finds that farms in the US have not always been organized around this type of family. Farm families and familiy farms were often much more sprawling, including extended family members and others, whereas today the common idea of a family farm is usually a husband and a wife and just the nuclear family with the, at least intent, of passing it down to their children. The really interesting thing about what Rosenberg documents here is that this version of the family farm that we have today was one that the US government, about 100 years ago was very interested in promoting. So, more specifically, through Rosenberg's book about the history of the 4H program, which is a program of the USDA, Rosenberg finds that the USDA was, through programs like 4H, was interested in promoting the family farm for two basic reasons. The first is that it needed, it wanted, didn't need, it wanted to convince farmers to adopt new industrial agricultural practices like mechanization and chemical agriculture. Now, farmers were not necessarily easy to convince to start buying expensive machinery and to start putting chemicals onto their land. So, through programs like 4H, the USDA very explicitly started training men farmers that to be a farmer was to be a business man. And they had to teach women farmers that their place wasn't in the field farming, but rather their place was in the home, like a suburban homemaker, a consumer. And so through programs like 4H, they had courtship dances and things like that.  

IKE LESLIE: Which brings me to Rosenberg’s second point, which is that the USDA was very concerned about declining white birth rates and population rates in the countryside. And so this version of the family farm, and idealizing it, it was a way of encouraging white people in the US to move West to farm, which has the effect, it's important to say, of maintaining white control of Indigenous lands, which is why, from my perspective, a queer lens on the family farm is necessarily a decolonial lens, because when we look at the power relations of how gender and sexuality work in the history of the family farm, it leads us to this very particular history of the settler colonial state--the US state interest in increasing white population in the countryside, controlling Indigenous lands and promoting industrial agricultural practices. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, that's so interesting because I think that a lot of people just think that the family farm is kind of a natural occurrence or something. It's just,I I don't know, t's just interesting to think about it as a creation as something intentional that was promoted, by the US government through these particular programs. 

IKE LESLIE: I want to say that--I want to be really clear that I'm not saying family farms are necessarily bad or that family farmers are bad. All I'm trying to say here with a queer lens on the family farm is that when we use this queer lens, it encourages us to question things that we take for granted, like the family farm. And why is that important? Because there are other ways of doing farming.There are other ways of organizing farms that work better, not just for queer folks, but often also for cisgender and heterosexual folks because the family farm creates a crisis not only for queer folks, but also for single people interested in agriculture--how is someone going to afford to do it by themselves? But also for cisgender heterosexual folks, because when something goes wrong in the family relationship, it can really affect the farm business, and when something goes in the wrong in the farm business, it can really affect the family relationship, which has big implications for things like food security, although we often don't look at it that way. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, yeah no, I think that's really important and necessary to think about. I just wanted to try to get a little more of a picture about 4H and establishing the gender, labor divisions, and like when you were talking about the wife as the consumer and not doing the farm work. There's also a different role in food production in that--you know, preserving and canning, and you know, I know that that's a big part of 4H, and teaching the girls how to do that while the boys are being taught how to, you know, raise a calf or something, you know. 

IKE LESLIE: Thanks for bringing that up because the gender perspective here is really important and the first thing is to ask who is a farmer? Now, when you ask yourself the question who is a farmer, who is the first person you think of? 

KAYTE YOUNG: Definitely a white male on a tractor. 

IKE LESLIE: There you go. Now, if we look at the numbers, we know that there the majority of farmers around the world are women. The majority of people producing food and feeding people are women in the US, in particular, when we look at this again, this history of the family farm, the USDA had interest in in changing that. That legacy is really strong today. So for example, the idea that women are not farmers was so pervasive that it wasn't even until the 1978 agricultural census was gender asked. It was just presumed. Tasks that women often did on farms, like the canning, you're talking about food, raising food for self-provisioning, raising poultry--these things were often not considered as farming either, let alone the bookkeeping, let alone the raising of family, which is raising the next generation of farmers oftentimes, and teaching them how to farm and how to live rurally. And so all of these tasks that are often associated and done by women who are not considered farmers. And that's so pervasive that even today the numbers on the USDA AG Census very much under count the number of women who are actually doing these farming tasks. And oftentimes it's in women themselves, women farmers, who don't see themselves as farmers because the common definition of ‘who a farmer’ does not include the tasks that they might be doing. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So, I wanted to talk a little bit about, I mean, we're we've already started talking about this, but more kind of contemporary farming, how it relies on marriage for labor for off farm income for health insurance and those sorts of things. I feel like that's something that's kind of hidden, too, from people who aren't trying to farm in the US right now. 

IKE LESLIE: So, in my research I look at what does gender and sexual norms have to do with farm viability, sustainability, and social justice. A core one of these norms is marriage. And when we look at what beginning farmers say are their top challenges for farm viability, a survey from the National Young Farmers Coalition finds that those top challenges are access to land. Student loan debt, which I understand as credit and knowledge, and health insurance. In the US. How do farmers go about accessing those key resources for farm viability? Well, it's often through marriage, so for example, accessing land often comes through an intimate partner's wealth or family or off farm income. And so we don't normally talk about it this way, but the agricultural system that we have in the United States relies on this heteropatriarchal organization of doing farms and of doing family.  

IKE LESLIE: Now, the USDA's own numbers say that 97% of US farms are family owned. So we have this picture of the family farm. People often use family farm rhetoric to say something to imply something about sustainability or local food. But if 97% of farms in the US are considered family farms that are organized this way, we know that the most conventional. The most industrial and oftentimes the most unsustainable farms are also family farms. OK, now let's look a little bit deeper at the USDA's numbers, the USDA finds that, get a load of this, 70%. of the countries principal farm operators--so the majority of the principle--farm owners in US get at least 3/4 of their household income from off farm sources, which is often through an intimate partner. So, getting back to this question of ‘who is a farmer?’ oftentimes part of that is also someone who farms full time. But this idea of a full-time farmer is largely a contemporary myth. If 70% of the US is farms are reliant on off-farm sources, often through an intimate partner. Now, in the US, in particular, getting back to those key resources we've talked about land. We've talked about labor, well, let's talk about health care and health insurance access. How do farmers go about accessing health care and health insurance in the US, especially considering that farming is, by the numbers, one of the most physically dangerous occupations. And also it's important to mention the exceedingly high mental health crisis rates among farmers. Well, they go about accessing health insurance, oftentimes through a married partner who has an off-farm job that can supply both of them health insurance. We do not have a good system for farmers to access their own health insurance in the US. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And that also just really points to if you had a farming partner like someone who you wanted to go into business with to farm with--if the economy of the farm is really relying on someone in that equation having off-farm income--having a job off the farm and including you in their insurance, you'd have to be domestic partners, you'd have to be intimate partners. So it just really points to like how reliant on heterosexual marriage relationships that farming is, especially if you're saying, as you're saying, 97% of farms are family owned. So yeah, it really yeah, I do think it's the kind of thing that people don't really think about when they hear family farming. It just sounds quaint or like that's just traditional or the way it is, or something and you don't think about how many people are not even making their income off of the farm, and then what that means. 

IIKE LESLIE: And that's what a queer perspective offers, it says, ‘let's step back and look at what is hidden in plain sight? What are the norms that we take for granted?’ Because the current system is not working for farmers, the current system is not even working for cisgender, heterosexual farmers and is certainly not working for BIPOC and queer farmers the way that it should be. 

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): BIPOC refers to Black Indigenous and People of Color, In case you weren't familiar with the term, it comes up again in the interview. I'm speaking with Ike Leslie, a food system scholar at the University of New Hampshire and a farmer at Magnetic Fields in southeast Vermont. We'll be back with more from our conversation after a short break, stay with us. 


KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): Welcome back. I'm Kate Young and today on Earth Eats, we're talking with Ike Leslie, a sociologist, and food system scholar at the University of New Hampshire. We're looking at farming and food systems from a queer perspective. Which, as we talked about in the first part of the show is also a justice perspective, and is intersectional--especially in terms of race. Here's Ike Leslie. 

IIKE LESLIE: So let's talk a little bit about how let's talk about farm viability. Let's talk about these key resources. Land, labor, credit, knowledge, and health care access. These are the really big things that farmers need to have access to for their farm businesses to work out And let's talk About what that means for queer folks and queer BIPOC folks and BIPOC folks in agriculture. So, let's go through it 1 by 1. So, in my own research, and I'm just going to give one example for each, in my own research, I found that as far as land access goes, queer farmers, and especially queer BIPOC folks, were often reluctant to pursue land access in rural areas. Which, by the way, is where oftentimes the best farmland and the most affordable farmland is, and so I jotted down a quote here from one of the farmers that I interviewed, who we’ll call Alex, who is a genderqueer farmer of color, grew up in the rural Midwest and wanted to farm in the country? But Alex told me, “I want to have my own land, but I'm also nervous about what life would be like out in the country. And I don't want to subject my children to any types of cruel forms of bullying or mistreatment. If people aren't receptive to my queer sexuality and queer gender expression, how will that affect my sales as a farmer?” 

So when we talk about oppression, heterosexism, heteropatriarchy, racism in rural areas, there's this common idea out there that cities are safer--are more accepting for queer folks, and that rural places are not, and this is a common stereotype even within mainstream LGBT spaces. But what my research shows is that heterosexism and oppression, it exists everywhere. It exists in cities and rural areas and suburban areas across that continuum. But the difference often is in cities, there's oftentimes a denser concentration of queer community where you can go to for support that where when you are experiencing oppression, when you are experiencing the challenge of being isolated as a queer person, you have a community to go to. And it's important to say here that it's not only folks actual experiences of oppression in rural areas, but also their perceptions of what they expect to find in rural areas--that there's this dominant narrative out there that folks can't find queer community in the country.  That in and of itself keeps folks from moving to rural areas. 

IIKE LESLIE: Talking about labor here, we've talked some about how when we use a queer lens on the family farm, it shows us that intimate partnerships are a key part of the labor equation for a farm--whether that person is working on the farm, working an off-farm job, or doing any of sort of that back-end stuff that's really important for the farm,  that IS farming in my opinion, like bookkeeping. And when we think about queer folks in the countryside, because of our, you know, overall fewer numbers in visibility and because of the rural heterosexism that does exist, it can be really difficult to find intimate partners who want to live or farm rurally. And so this model of the family farm doesn't work for a lot of queer folks. 

Now, talking about credit access, let's talk about getting a farm off the ground, right? We know that the USDA about 20 years ago has lost some real big court battles for discrimination in the loan process. Now, just one example from that, doctor Julie Keller at the University of Rhode Island investigated what this meant for women farmers and found that women were not quote read as farmers by loan officers, and so they were less likely to get loans. Thinking back to what we were discussing about who is a farmer, right? So, if the loan officer does not perceive the person asking for a loan as a true farmer, they're less likely to get loans, and so my point here and Doctor Keller's point here is that farmers’ ability to get government assistance and loans is tied up in the loan officer’s perceptions and implicit biases about what it means to be a farmer, which is influenced by their ideas about gender, sexuality, and race. 

Now, I'll say as far as learning how to farm goes, one common way that folks learn to farm these days is through apprenticeships, which can be very isolating for queer folks. Think about what it means, for instance, for a transgender person to move to the rural countryside where they do not have community to be working on a cisgender heterosexual farm that they might not know the politics of they might not have transportation they might not have a way to leave, and so without visible queer community and spaces like apprenticeships, universities, conferences, and other places where people learn to farm queer potential, farmers can easily be made to feel like this profession is not for them. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, you talk about how sustainable agriculture--you know, the kind of non-conventional, more, you know, vegetable and fruit farming kind of practices do offer more of a space for women, but that often it's well-educated, white heterosexual women who are married. And so even the places that are allowing space for women, there's also, there's just, again, the intersections of race, and class and what you have access to. 

IIKE LESLIE: Yeah, so I'll first say that when we when we talk about the intersections of sustainability and gender and sexuality, I first want to say that you know, sustainability is a continuum and it's about all types of farms, and I think there is a common assumption that local or sustainable farms more accepting somehow, which is just not necessarily true, right? This is talking specifically, you know, from a queer perspective, the sustainable ag world, the organic ag world celebrates the family farm like everybody else, right? 

And you know, there's one very interesting study done by Doctor Gregory Peter and a team. Doctor Peter is at UW Oshkosh. What they found is that gender has something to do with conventional cisgender heterosexual farmers’ ability and willingness to transition to more sustainable practices. Now, I'm talking--this was a study of commodity producers in the Midwest, right, conventional commodity producers. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So, like corn and soybeans? 

IIKE LESLIE: Uh-hmm. And what this study found is that hegemonic masculinity, or you know, the ways that men feel like they need to act as men, especially in front of others. It inhibits cisgender, heterosexual men, conventional farmers from transitioning to sustainable practices. Now, why? Because certain aspects of hegemonic masculinity--like the things that this type of masculinity celebrates--like bigness, mechanization and the domination of nature. These things align with industrial agricultural practices, and so this study found that transitioning to sustainable agriculture meant that these men, farmers not only had to change their actual farming practices, but they had to change how they see themselves as men, because men, sustainable farmers they found were more likely to do things like admit mistakes, to learn from them, describe farming as working with instead of against nature, to praise cooperation instead of acting in competition with other farmers, and also to welcome the voices of women. 

KAYTE YOUNG: But that seems to go against what you said a few minutes ago about how we have this perception that people who do sustainable farming are are somehow different and and it sounds like maybe they are somewhat in terms of what they're open to and their relationship with the natural world. 

IIKE LESLIE: Well, certainly not all sustainable farmers are the same. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Right, of course. 

IIKE LESLIE: But I think, I think one thing that is a pattern across sustainable agriculture that offers some opportunity for social acceptance is the very fact that sustainable farmers are questioning the mainstream system. That what is common among sustainable farmers is they don't just take for granted the way things are done. They ask themselves that extra question of what do I need to do to do things a little bit better. My point earlier is that just because they're asking that question in terms of things like soil health doesn't mean they're asking that question in terms of things like gender, sexuality, and race relations. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Right and what you said about how they're kind of pushing the image of the family farm just as much as conventional farmers are in some ways, I can picture, even more so because there is kind of an element of marketing that you know, organic farmer, sustainable agriculture is trying to do, to say, ‘hey, we're not hippies in the woods we’re just like conventional farmers, we're, you know, heteronormative families and we're doing this kind of farming and you don't need to be afraid, you know. 

IIKE LESLIE: And when we think about movement building, and when we think about the food justice world and all of the important work that is being done as far as BIPOC producers and as far as equitable food access on the consumption end of things, we got to ask if this is the way that the local, organic or sustainable agriculture movement is presenting itself where do folks from these other groups and with more justice perspectives, fit in? 

KAYTE YOUNG: Right, do you want to talk a little bit about some of the other models that are possible? 

IIKE LESLIE: I'm so glad you asked me that. So one of my mentors was Dr. Monica White at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Dr. White studies the history of Black farmers and Black farmer cooperative organizing in the US and one of her main points is that the story of Black farmers does not end with slavery and oppression, but that there is a rich history of black farmers using agriculture as resistance to capitalist agriculture and as resistance to systemic racism in this country, and similarly, the story of queer farmers does not end with oppression. There are many examples of very exciting queer alternatives that not only queer folks, but I think the rest of the world has a whole lot to learn from. And so I'd love to take you on a little tour of some of those alternatives that I think are just particularly queer. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, great. 

IIKE LESLIE: The first one because we've talked so much about family farms, which I'll call blood family farms for lack of a better word right now. The first is chosen family farms. Now, this concept of chosen family is one that queer people have had for a long time and stems from when queer folks have been and still are unfortunately rejected by their blood families. Queer folks have often and continue to develop other types of families that look very different from traditional, heteronormative blood families, and we see that in farming, too, so because farming is at the end of the day, a cooperative enterprise in one way or another. Individuals don't get food from farm to plate, so what's really interesting to me about this idea of chosen family versus blood family is in blood family there's no opportunity to consent to who you're in relationship with. Whereas in chosen family it's all about ongoing consent. Which, by the way, necessarily makes it a feminist project and so I see examples of queer farmers organizing who they live with and who they farm with in much more diverse ways than that family farm. Now, many queer farmers do follow the family farm model or some adaptation of it, and that works for them. But many others that I farm with and I organize with and that I've interviewed--like bristle at this very heteronormative idea of the blood family farm. And so chosen family farms means that there's not this sort of hetero patriarchal blueprint for organizing land and farm ownership or labor relations. And so, chosen family farms oftentimes promote negotiation and imagination about alternative and oftentimes more cooperative forms of farm organization and ownership. Another queer alternative is the idea of queer ecology. And one of the projects of queer ecology is to question how humans use ideas about nature to further political goals earlier on in our conversation, you ask what's natural or unnatural and in the US we've had for a very long time--these crimes against nature--there are laws to discriminate against queer folks. And so my point here is that part of queer activism is questioning what people in power say is natural and unnatural. And when we start questioning things like this, we start to see things like farming, sustainability and the climate crisis differently. Another really exciting alternative that I see is food supply chains. So one thing that we haven't talked about yet is by research on queer food insecurity, but on this idea of queer food supply chains, queer farmers have started developing pathways from farm to plate to be feeding queer folks who are not being adequately fed by our current food system. 

IIKE LESLIE: And so, an example of this is Rocksteady Farm in Millerton New York, which is a for profit queer farmer worker cooperative, which does things like solidarity CSA shares and delivers to queer health organizations in New York City. And one last thing I'll mention is transnational queer farmer organizing—so I don't want us to get the impression here that queer farmer organizing is a US thing or a white thing. It's been happening around the world. And in particular, La Via Campasina, a member organization in Brazil and also in Europe, have been having conversations about the roles of gender and sexuality in a rural and farming future, centered on a concept that they call food sovereignty and in these spaces there's a couple of things that, you know, that they focus on, which I think are very queer that I'd love to share. One of those is bodily sovereignty. Bodily sovereignty, it demands labor justice, which is necessarily anti-capitalist, because how capitalist Labor Relations work is to extract value greater than the wage you're paying your laborer or else you wouldn't hire them in a capitalist system. Second, chosen family which we've talked about a little bit, chosen family embodies this idea of this feminist idea of consent and labor and household relations, as well as a decolonial focus on land access and ownership. And also, and this one I love queer joy. So us queer folks we've always used celebration and sex and fabulousness and our organizing strategies, which I think is important. It needs to be taken seriously for addressing crises like the farmer mental health crisis and for sustaining collective action. 

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): I'm speaking with Ike Leslie farmer, food scholar and community organizer. Let's take a short break, and when we return, we'll talk more about food security in the queer community, and more. Stay with us. 


KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): Kayte Young here This is Earth Eats. Some of the current research that my guest doctor, Ike Leslie is involved with alongside Dr.Jess Carson and Doctor Anna Lena Bruce at the University of New Hampshire is tracking food insufficiency rates for queer and trans folks compared with heterosexual and cisgender folks. Their preliminary findings indicate some significant disparities. 

IKE LESLIE: Now keep in mind all of these numbers I'm about to share with you are an undercount of food insecurity in the sense that if you didn't have enough money for food three weeks ago But did last week, you wouldn't show up in these numbers. So, let's look at those numbers by sexual orientation in the US, about 7% of straight identifying folks didn't have enough money for food, and the number is double 14% for lesbian, gay, bisexual and non-trans queer folks in the United States, 8% of cisgender folks experienced food insecurity last week and 21% of transgender folks did. Let's look at those numbers by race. In New England, which often prides itself as being maybe more progressive, and which also has a lower overall food insecurity rate. People who identified as straight and Hispanic had a food insufficiency rate of about 12%. And those who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual or non-trans queer folks and Hispanic that number jumped to 24%. Cisgender folks in New England have a food insufficiency rate at around 6%, but those who identified as transgender and Hispanic, that number jumped to 33--one in three. And for those who identified as trans and black, that number is at 35%. The food system and the food economy that we have is failing to feed queer people and especially transgender people, and especially queer and trans people of color. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And do you feel like that is just a reflection of, I mean because we know that food insecurity is tide to poverty and to wages and access to all of these other resources in society it's not just all on its own. 

IKE LESLIE: In these models, with this data set, we were actually able to control for income, and unfortunately we found that these disparities persisted even after controlling for income. So people at the same income rates transgender and LGB folks were More likely to report food insufficiency and that could be for for a number of different reasons. This is something we don't know much about why and is why we need much more research, especially qualitative research to tell us why. But we have a couple of clues. So for example, one of the few qualitative studies on LGBT food insecurity found that. At publicly funded food provisioning sites, so places where, you know, if you need emergency food access, these places are often held at churches--especially in rural areas, and this study found that some of these churches even expected people to pray before receiving their food. That's just one example of how oppression based on gender, sexuality, and race exists outside of income, but it also exists through income. 

There is this common stereotype of the affluent white urban gay man. And it is nothing but a stereotype, the numbers show us that LGBTIQ poverty rates are disproportionate compared to cisgender and heterosexual poverty rates. And when we talk about having enough money to buy food, we also need to look at things like job discrimination, like housing discrimination, which we know LGBTIQ plus people face at exceedingly disproportionate rates  

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, and something that you brought up before about family support, that sometimes isn't available for queer folks. 

IKE LESLIE: Yeah, you have to ask yourself what are your social support systems? Where do you go? 

KAYTE YOUNG: Who can you rely on if you are having a hard month or whatever? 

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): As we were wrapping up our conversation, I wanted to hear from Ike Leslie their thoughts about what's at stake, not just for queer and trans farmers, but for anyone who's concerned about the future of our food system and the future of sustainable agriculture and what this queer lens can offer going forward. 

IKE LESLIE: Well, First off, we need to think about what it means to sustain queer and bipac folks in the countryside. I live in a queer chosen BIPOC family. I live in rural Vermont in a town of 400 and so often I meet queer, trans, and BIPOC folks who come to places like rural Vermont to live and to farm and stay here for a while, and then they leave because of the racism cissexism and heterosexism that they experience here, or the lack of community resources in order to, sort of, replenish their energy, admits that discrimination. I want to emphasize, I believe we don't have an issue with attracting BIPOC queer folks to rural areas we have an issue with retaining them and so when I think about the future of sustainable agriculture. I want a world of farmers where we have as many ideas, as many life perspectives at the table as possible. What does this mean for cisgender heterosexual folks, and folks who aren't necessarily focused on the experiences of LGBTQ people? And what I say is, if we ignore gender and sexuality and race as farmers, we're shooting ourselves in the foot. 

There are so many ideas, there are so many alternatives out there. There're so many lessons to be learned. There is so much cooperation to be had, but all of these baked-in ideas about sexual orientation, gender identity, and race--they get in the way. 

And you know what? I see such hope here on the local level. I have such strong relationships with my local Republican white cisgender heterosexual farming neighbors. I rely on them--maybe in the future they will rely on me for support when things happen like a tractor breaks down. We're buying food from each other. We're building community, and there are many, many areas, especially in local issues where we totally align and where we work together, you know at the end of the day I'm a farmer. I'm a very practical person. We're in it for similar reasons. And what I'm trying to highlight here is that we can do better collectively. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, and I also think that this model isn't actually working out so great right now the, family farm model, and we're seeing it with land transfers and the next generation not necessarily being interested in farming and like we need new models. 

IKE LESLIE: I'm so glad you mentioned land transfer. That's such an important issue. Now when we think about the family farm model I have, I have sympathy for this situation that family farmers find themselves in because look family farmers, they spend their entire lives dedicated to the farm to building this business, to building the infrastructural improvements on their land to create a farm that is viable, they sink everything that they have into it. And then what happens when they're ready to retire in the family farm model? Well, usually they've sunk all their assets into the farm, which raises the price of the farm to a point where their only option for retiring is to sell it, oftentimes to developers. And then what situation are they in that their life work is being sucked away from agriculture? And then for beginning farmers, even if they want to sell to them, usually don't have the capital or assets in order to purchase such a capitalized farm and so the family farm model it doesn't offer positions for people to come in and out of the business and in and out of ownership the way that other models do, and this is really critical when we talk about farmers, the assumption is we're talking about farm owners, not farm workers. Now, to me, a farmer is someone who grows food or fiber or fuel, and we need pathways for people for farmers who are growing what we in society need to have ownership and to have pathways in and out of land tenure that allows them to make decisions about their land in ways that are more cooperative, that are better for labor, and that are better for the environment. 

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): Before we ended our conversation, I asked Ike Leslie if they had some final thoughts. 

IKE LESLIE: Speaking to all the queer farmers out there who might be listening to the this you're not alone, and there's more of you in your town and you just might not have met each other yet. And fortunately there is an emergence of resources for connecting each other, and I'll highlight, for example, queer farmer which hosts a listserv for queer farmers to connect over things like job opportunities, resource sharing, things like that. And lastly, I'll mention if anyone out there is interested in learning more about any of the research that I've presented or would like to get copies or summaries of any of that you can find those resources and you can contact me at my website, Isaac Leslie com. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Thank you so much for that. And yeah, we didn't even get to talk about Magnetic Fields or how you found your way into farming or any of that, but it's been really great to hear from you about this work that you're doing. I think it's really important. 

IKE LESLIE: Well, thank you so much for having me. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, thank you.

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating): That was Dr. Ike Leslie, a sociologist in the Food Systems Department at the University of New Hampshire. They're also a community organizer and a farmer at Magnetic Fields Farm in southeast Vermont. You can find links and contact information on our website That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time. 

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me Renee Reed. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Production Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey. 


Two figures from the back, looking at a red barn. One of the figures has 'support queer farmers' on the back of their shirt

Ike Leslie farms with their chosen family at Magnetic Fields in southeast Vermont (courtesy of Ike Leslie)

This week on the show we’re questioning the traditions and assumptions around the role of family in farming. 

“When something goes wrong in the family relationship, it can really affect the farm business, and when something goes wrong in the farm business, it can really affect the family relationship–which has big implications for things like food security–although we often don’t look at it that way.”

My guest is sociologist Isaac Leslie, of the University of New Hampshire. Leslie currently works in the Food Systems Department at UNH, and they are also a farmer at Magnetic Fields Farm, and a community organizer. 

Queering Food System

On this show, we explore the food system from many perspectives. Sometimes it’s about preparing food, other times it’s about growing food. We look at food access, environmental concerns–we’ve applied a lens of racial justice and equity to the study of food, we’ve looked at land access and historical discrimination.

Recently, I heard a talk through the Indiana University Food Institute’s speaker series. It was a topic I hadn’t really thought about before. The guest speaker was Ike Leslie, and the talk was called Queering the Food System. The lecture was interesting and thought provoking and touched on issues we have examined on the show before, but approached them in new ways. I reached out to Ike Leslie and invited them for a conversation.

Further reading:

Isaac Sohn Leslie, Jaclyn Wypler, Michael Mayerfeld Bell, Relational Agriculture: Gender, Sexuality, and Sustainability in U.S. Farming, Society & Natural Resources.

Gabriel Rosenberg, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Julie Keller, "I Wanna Have My Own Damn Dairy Farm!”: Women Farmers, Legibility, and Femininities in Rural Wisconsin, U.S., Journal of Rural Social Sciences.

Monica White, Freedom Farmers:Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, University of North Carolina Press.

Gregory Peter, Michael Bell, Susan Jarnagin, Donna Bauer, Coming Back Across the Fence: Masculinity and the Transition to Sustainable AgricultureRural Sociology

Jennifer Russomanno, Food Insecurity Among Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Individuals in the Southeast United States: A Qualitative Study,Transgender Health.

Rock Steady Farm, Millerton New York. 

La Via Campesina, International Peasants' Movement.

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